Tuesday, April 26, 2011

My Letter to President Obama

A blog post by Bill Mefford
Please consider writing your own letter to President Obama.

Dear Mr. President,

Last week you made an eloquent statement in response to the Republican budget plan that would take away important programs that benefit the most vulnerable in society and give even more tax breaks to the most powerful and affluent. You said, "Nothing is easier than solving a problem on the backs of people who are poor, or people who are powerless, or don't have lobbyists, or don't have clout. I don’t think that’s particularly courageous.”

Your statement powerfully expressed what so many people of faith feel, including myself, as we watch a national debate regarding the budget that so often ignores the marginalized and vulnerable. These are the people for whom Jesus came to share good news and with whom he incarnated himself among.

Yet, as I listened to you last week I could not help but take note of the stunning hypocrisy in your statement. I fully agree that what is easiest and least courageous is trying to solve national problems on the backs of the poor and most vulnerable. Yet, that is exactly what you are doing in your attempts to solve the broken immigration system.

During the brief tenure of your administration you have deported more immigrants than during the entirety of President Bush's time in office. You have dramatically expanded enforcement programs like 287 g and Secure Communities, which force local law enforcement to act as immigration officials thereby eroding trust by immigrant communities in their local police. These programs have resulted in racial profiling and have made the public less safe. You have also refused to grant deferred status to DREAM Act students and the families of citizen children, though you repeatedly make statements of your support for immigrants and their families.

I know immigrant families whose loved ones have been deported, whose families have been torn apart because of your extreme focus on brutal enforcement programs as the primary means of fixing the immigration system when other solutions such as providing administrative relief to DREAM Act students and families of citizen children are readily available.

The fear of local officials has become so intense that I know of one immigrant family in Iowa whose house was on fire and they called their pastor before they called the fire department in order to find out if they would be in danger of deportation for reporting the fire. I know of countless stories where immigrants are afraid to call the police to report crimes committed against them and their neighbors because they are afraid they might be detained and deported. I know of stories of immigrant women who endure domestic abuse because they are more afraid of themselves or their loved ones being arrested than they are of the continued abuse. The programs, such as 287 g and Secure Communities that you have dramatically expanded, are not bringing greater security to our country. They are simply state-sponsored terror.

You are attempting to solve an enormous problem on the backs of the most vulnerable in our society. You have chosen the easiest and least courageous path and that is through promoting the idea that the problem with our broken immigration system is immigrants. Not US foreign and economic policies which have caused millions of immigrants to flee north for the prospects of economic security; not on US businesses which have thrived on cheap labor. You are punishing the victims and the duplicity is shocking.

And so as I listened to your powerful words last week in response to the proposed Republican budget plan, I could not help but feel extreme sadness. Not even anger – not yet, though I am sure that is coming. The sadness I feel – and I know felt by all people of faith who are incarnated among immigrants and their families – is the same sadness felt by the prophets who came face to face with such blatant hypocrisy and abuse of power against the poor and vulnerable in their time.

Whether it was Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, rebuking Israel’s King for caring more about building his palace than caring for the poor, or Nathan accusing King David for abusing his power for sentencing Uriah to death in battle so that he could take his wife Bathsheba as his own, or John the Baptist’s condemnation of Herod, or Jesus’ denunciation of the Pharisees, prophets have been misunderstood as angry and irrelevant; someone to tolerate as long as possible, but then ignore, if not eliminate entirely. Prophets are irrelevant to those who want efficiency and who prize order above justice.

The truth is that as people of faith incarnated among immigrant communities, we are not irrelevant if the subject is justice and that is the case here. We are also not out-of-touch. We are quite in touch with the sufferings that immigrant families are enduring at the hands of your policies. And as the prophets who came before us, we are not angry – not yet, I would stress. That is assuredly coming though. We are deeply saddened and disheartened by the promise of someone who seemed at one time dedicated to the welfare of immigrants and their families and now seems bent on tearing those families apart.

Mr. President, you are choosing what is politically the easiest and least courageous pathway forward in refusing to provide administrative relief to DREAM Act students and families of citizen children. You, Mr. President, are choosing what is most politically expedient and least courageous as you continue to dramatically expand programs like 287 g and Secure Communities that are terrorizing immigrant communities. These are people who have no clout, who do not have lobbyists. They have looked to you for leadership and up to this point you have given them nothing. We hear your rhetoric about supporting comprehensive immigration reform, but it rings hollow as your policies continue to wreak terror and bring destruction to immigrant communities and immigrant families.

And so we must request - we must even demand Mr. President – that you heed your own words in regards to the broken immigration system. "Nothing is easier than solving a problem on the backs of people who are poor, or people who are powerless, or don't have lobbyists, or don't have clout. I don’t think that’s particularly courageous.” Amen, Mr. President. I do not think that is particularly courageous either. So, stop the programs 287 g and Secure Communities, and provide administrative relief to DREAM Act students and the parents and families of citizen children. Be strong and courageous Mr. President and we can once again stand beside you. But we will not stand with you today. We stand with our immigrant sisters and brothers who are daily being terrorized by your policies.


Bill Mefford

I encourage you to write your own letter to President Obama so that he can truly hear all of our voices.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Hearing the Good Friday Story Again

A blog post by Rev. Yvette Schock

Every year on Good Friday, Christians gather to hear a story that showcases some of the worst of human behavior, individually and collectively. We see Judas sneaking around and conniving to deliver Jesus, his friend and teacher to the authorities who, he knows, want to get rid of Jesus; Peter, who, for all his bravado in drawing his sword in the dramatic scene at Gethsemane, denies he even knows Jesus when the stakes get too high; and the religious leaders, so desperate to keep some kind of peace, they’re willing to manipulate witnesses and evidence to get the conviction they want. We see Pontius Pilate, a slave to political expediency and perhaps his own ambition, and the foot-soldiers of the Roman Empire, demonstrating human ingenuity in torturing those deemed dangerous. And then there’s the crowd of regular folks, people like you and me, standing around to watch the whole show, fearful, excited, willing to play their parts when called upon by this or that authority, so easily caught up in the momentum of the moment, the crowds. And then, too, there is in the story all the detail of Jesus’ suffering—the innocent man convicted, the accused insurgent tortured and humiliated, a broken man crying in thirst and pain.

Some might wonder why we insist on hearing this story again and again, every Good Friday. The stories of the Resurrection, stories of Jesus’ disciples enlivened by the presence of the Risen Christ, touched and moved by the spirit of God to live together, share what they had in common, and minister to the sick and the poor in their communities—these stories one can understand telling again and again. The crucifixion—it’s just not a pretty story. So why is it so important for us to study it, hear it and share it as much as we hear and proclaim those resurrection stories?

Every year on Good Friday I’m reminded of the story of Emmett Till. Emmett was a 14-year old black boy from Chicago who, in 1955, went to Mississippi to visit family. One day he supposedly looked at a white woman the wrong way, and that night three grown men dragged Emmett from his uncle’s cabin, beat him to death and threw his body in the river. Emmett’s body was found four days after he was murdered, and was shipped back to his hometown to be buried. When Emmett Till’s mama first saw the broken body of her son, she said, “Where is his ear?…Where is his eye?” She wept to see it, her son’s body disfigured beyond recognition, but she insisted that his casket be open for the funeral. “Let people see what’s happened,” she said. She knew Emmett’s body told a certain truth about the real consequences of racism and segregation in a way that nothing else could. People lined up around the block from the church to visit Emmett Till’s broken body, and their witness to his death became a powerful catalyst for action in the early days of the civil rights movement.

When we gather each Good Friday to hear again the story of Christ’s suffering and death, we are like all those people who went to visit Emmett’s body; we gather to witness, to confront the truth about human sin written on Jesus’ body. The story about Jesus’ last hours, its central place in the gospels, the ancient tradition of gathering to hear the story in the days before Easter, reveals in our Christian faith the unavoidable call to us to look with clear eyes and to mourn not only the human brokenness and suffering carried on Jesus’ body 2000 years ago, but the brokenness and suffering born by so many of God’s children in our world today, and our own shortcomings in following Jesus, our own bad behavior.

This year as I hear the story of Jesus’ suffering, I’ll be thinking about our immigrant brothers and sisters. I will remember in prayer Arles, a friend in New York, and others who face the choice to stay with their families and watch them starve, or to live far from them in order to provide for them; the families of migrants who die in the desert trying to cross the US-Mexico border; the families of Nery Romero, Boubacar Bah and other detainees who have died in immigration detention; those who are separated from their families in the U.S. due to a broken immigration system that is unjust and dysfunctional; and immigrant children who will live in fear.

On Good Friday we gather to hear again the story of Christ’s suffering, and we must also hear the stories of our immigrant neighbors, because we cannot be credible witnesses to the hope of resurrection if we are not able to see and know the brokenness in us and in our world that cries out for God’s power for new life.

God’s response to the brokenness of our world was the Incarnation; God’s response was to enter into the world and take on the full range of human experience, to pour out love from the midst of it, and to carry all of it to the cross, and beyond.

We know that the power of the One who passed through death into new life is still at work in our world today. We hear this story today, and we remember in prayer the suffering of those who are tortured and hungry and marginalized in our world today, knowing that God promises that what is, is not all that will be. We gather today around the cross, knowing it is not only a place of suffering, but ultimately points to the promise of resurrection, and it is that hope in God’s power to bring new life which strengthens us to open our eyes and to respond to what our eyes see with our hearts and hands and our whole lives.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Rethinking Our Approach to Immigration Reform

Dr. Helene Slessarev-Jamir is the Mildred M. Hutchinson Professor of Urban Studies at the Claremont School of Theology. Her upcoming book, to be released in May of 2011 is, "Prophetic Activism: Progressive Religious Justice Movements in Contemporary America," (New York: New York University Press) to be released in May, 2011.

This was originally posted on God's Politics.

It is time for those of us who have been advocating for comprehensive immigration reform to rethink our strategies. After a recent visit with executive staff from the White House, Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Senate, and House of Representatives as part of a United Methodist Church delegation, I have concluded that at this time our chances of advancing immigrant rights at the national level are minimal. We were told by a deputy director of the White House’s Domestic Policy Council that the president is currently unwilling to even consider making administrative changes in the implementation of current detention and deportation policies that have thus far resulted in more deportations than occurred under the Bush administration. They are fearful that any administrative attempts to lessen the scope of programs such as 287(g) or Secure Communities, which claim to target serious criminals, yet frequently lead to the deportation of people picked up for minor offenses, would provoke reprisals from congressional Republicans who would insert burdensome restrictions on the funding of executive branch departments into the FY 2011 budget.

We were equally discouraged by our meetings with Senator Reid and Senator Schumer’s policy staff who told us that they were intending to meet with Glenn Beck’s supporters to find out what types of immigration policies they would be willing to support. The only positive news we received came from our meeting with the Democratic staff of the subcommittee on immigration of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on the Judiciary. The subcommittee staff told us that they felt the Republicans were sufficiently divided amongst themselves that it would be difficult for them to pass any particularly onerous new anti-immigrant measures, including E-verify, which would require all employers to electronically check social security numbers before hiring someone. So, my overall impression from this series of meetings is that we are essentially at a stalemate nationally with little chance of any favorable immigration legislation, but also no new negative legislation in the near future.

However, this does not mean that there is not work to be done. For the time being, I am suggesting that we focus our activities at the state and local levels. We need to prevent the passage of Arizona copycat laws in the various states in which they have been introduced. Even though many of these laws will ultimately be found unconstitutional because immigration policy clearly falls under the purview of the national government, in the meantime, they are making the lives of undocumented immigrants miserable. According to a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, migrant farmworker families are already keeping their children out of school whenever they enter Arizona. That state’s new laws (SB 1070) have effectively denied access to education for undocumented children by requiring proof of citizenship to enroll school, even though the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that every child is entitled to a public education. Elena Lacayo, the immigration field coordinator for the National Council of La Raza sees these copycat laws as a “trickle up strategy” where state level anti-immigrant laws establish new precedents for future national policy. We should recognize that exactly such strategies have in the past often led to the eventual enactment of new national legislation so it’s important that we stop bad legislation from being passed by the states.

There are other states with well organized, strong Latino political representation, such as my home state of California, in which some progressive pro-immigrant reforms are possible. For example, there is a legislative campaign underway in California to pass a state level DREAM Act, which would make undocumented students eligible for institutional and state financial aid at all of the state’s public universities.

Even if the campaign to pass national comprehensive immigration reform takes some years to finally succeed, we can still build social movements that create what cultural anthropologist, James Holston, has called “insurgent citizenship.” I see organizing efforts by groups such as Interfaith Worker Justice and Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE) that work with unions to expand immigrant workers’ rights as well as the many local congregational community organizing networks that seek increased access to quality education, health care, and safe communities for people who do not possess formal U.S. citizenship as new forms of insurgent citizenship. Through getting involved in these types of local, regional, and statewide campaigns we are expanding substantive citizenship rights from below for people who are being denied formal rights by the American nation-state. All of these efforts will contribute to improving the quality of life for all immigrants and their children, thereby contributing to the building of shalom even when it is being denied on Capitol Hill. Creating a broader set of rights for immigrants at the local level has indeed already occurred in a number of European countries, where in some cases, non-citizen immigrants are even allowed to vote in local elections.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

How DHS and ICE Drove Me to Prayer

I have to admit, I am anything but a contemplative. I have a restless mind that does not stop. That can be creatively helpful on projects and ideas, but it can also be maddening (as those who work with me can attest).

I have a very hard time identifying with the monastic life. Though I respect those who choose this calling, I must confess, it just doesn't fit me. In seminary, I took a class that looked somewhat at the lives of some of the saints and while my respect for some of them increased, I honestly never really fully understood how they could spend so much of their lives in silent prayer before God. I can get restless just watching a commercial.

I do not discount the need for prayer at all, but I like to go as fast as I can, 150 miles an hour, hair on fire, the whole bit. I like to push as hard as I can, in as many areas as I can. In working on issues of justice, I do not see how else to do it. The injustices are so great, the challenges before us are so enormous and the forces working against us are so structurally and spiritually deep and entrenched. I believe God is out in front of us, going as fast as possible (and sometimes waiting impatiently for the Church to catch up!), pushing hard, and keenly aware of all that is happening to the most vulnerable in our world.

So, in experiencing God, I have always tended to be in motion. I feel God's presence as I see God's Church incarnated among the most vulnerable in society and working on justice on their behalf. I see God's strength when I meet with immigrants and hear the stories of their love and passion for their families even while the U.S. government works to break their families a part. I hear God's voice in the prophets, such as Amos and Isaiah, but also in our modern day prophets like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hamer, Gustavo Gutierrez, and so many others. So, yeah, I experience God, but in motion.

I just struggle with being still before God. I am not sure I really get it.

But I think I am learning this the hard way. In fact, the Obama Administration might make me a contemplative in the end.

Recently, I have been as angry and frustrated as I think I have ever been in working for any justice issue in my life. I have grown sick and tired of this issue being framed as a national security issue by government officials, media folks, and even among so-called religious leaders. It is obviously first and foremost a human rights issue and our focus should be on families and defending the rights of immigrants. I am almost entirely disillusioned by the President's rhetoric that seems in favor of positive reform, all the while his administration engages in state-sponsored terror against immigrant communities. The hypocrisy is just startling. Most Republicans are heartless on this issue while most democrats are spineless. I am numb with frustration.

So, a couple of weeks ago, there was a day when I especially felt spent. It was a day when I worked non-stop, without lunch, feeling constantly behind because there is just so much to do, and yet, I see absolutely zero progress in Congress and a total denial of responsibility by President Obama and his administration for the terror they are causing. So, I went to the chapel in the United Methodist Building where I work and I just sat there. I was still. I didn't cry out, I didn't sob, I didn't see angels or hear trumpets.

I was just still. I am not sure I had done that in months - I can't even remember. But man it felt good. I probably sat there for 20 minutes (almost a personal record!), thinking, praying, just alone with Jesus and my thoughts.

I didn't get some tremendous vision for how to fix the impasse we are in. No soul-searching illumination or transformative visions. I just rested and gave my efforts, my failures, my deep resentment, anger, and discouragement to God. And I just rested.

Of course, I eventually got up and I left. It was tempting to stay and rest, Lord knows, it was the best feeling I had had all day. But there is always a time to walk back into the valley and see the crowds and the immense needs and once again work to bring healing and justice. Rest is just laziness unless there is work.

So, for those of you who are not as trained in the art of contemplative prayer and meditation as others, I pray you will find some time in the midst of the madness to be still and allow God to come near. This is not my usual message, but I feel it is appropriate and necessary given the amount of work we have. You may be feeling angry at the situation we face, but God is even angrier at the injustice and oppression being poured out on immigrant families right now. You may be feeling disheartened at the lack of progress and I can testify that God is present with us even in our deep discouragement as well.

I hope you will find your 20 minutes - maybe even just five minutes. Don't worry, the world won't fall apart while you are still. It will still be waiting for you to come back. But you might come back to it a little lighter and that may be just what the world needs anyway.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

What Part of Incarnation Do You Not Understand?

A blog post by Bill Mefford

I have unfortunately turned off most of the current praise and worship music. It focuses on a private relationship with Jesus and says little to nothing about the world that Jesus calls us to love. The music reflects and feeds the individualism and detachment that sadly pervades the Church and distorts our true calling to love and serve others, particularly the vulnerable.

But this kind of worship has not always characterized the Church, and certainly not in its earliest stages. This is clearly seen in Paul's letter to the church in Philippi. In his letter Paul uses a hymn sung by early Christians in 2:5-11. In this passage Paul describes Jesus in v. 5 as being in the "form of God [but who] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited." This means that Jesus, though at the same time fully human and fully divine, did not use his divinity for his own selfish purposes. Instead, he gave up the rights to his divinity as he took human form and he poured out his life entirely for others.

Why did Jesus do this? Because incarnating himself among the human race was not enough - he longed to identify himself fully with all of humanity to even the most vulnerable and least powerful. Jesus "emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross."

The story of God's incarnation among the most vulnerable of humanity did not begin in the New Testament. In Isaiah 57:15, God is described as "the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy; 'I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit.'"

God is incarnated among the most lowly in society because that is in the very nature of who God is. Likewise, incarnation among the vulnerable in society is what God expects of those who follow him. The story of Acts is not just the story of the beginning of the Church, it is the story of God's repeated urgings, pleadings, cajolings to the new followers of the Way to go to those they once believed not worthy of God's love and to incarnate themselves among them and share with them in God's love and transformation. It is through incarnation that not only those we go to are transformed by God's love - so are we. Incarnation in therefore implicitly mutual ni that both the vulnerable and those incarnating themselves among them are transformed. Incarnation is how true biblical community is created.

The implications of the downward trajectory of Jesus' call to his followers in missional engagement are enormous, but all too often ignored. For those of us who wish to receive the benefits of God's redemption, we must also follow in his footsteps into incarnation among the most vulnerable in society. But yet, there are too many in the church who refuse to follow Jesus into incarnational relationships among the most vulnerable, including newly arrived immigrants.

Jesus invites us to follow him into shared existence with the sojourners in our land where their joys become ours, their fears become ours, their hopes become our own. But he also has a stern message for those who sit safely on the sidelines and pass judgment on the most vulnerable. Jesus angrily charges the Pharisees with engaging in the exact opposite of incarnational mission. He tells them, "they tie up heavy burdens hard to bear and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger." (Matthew 23:4) The Pharisees are guilty of offering instruction without empathy and making demands on others when they make no effort to provide support or relief.

And couldn't the same be said of all those who mindlessly repeat the mantra, "what part of illegal don't you understand?" So often, these words are spoken by people who, within the comfort of their isolation, are so willing to offer advice (no matter how bad it might be), but who are not engaging in any missional actions that provide true relief and compassion for immigrants.

So, let me offer a way to respond to the thoughtless mantra. We can now respond, "what part of incarnation do you not understand?" If incarnation is integral to God's character - and it is as we have seen, then anything short of this kind of missional engagement falls short of biblical and missional faithfulness.

Jesus invites and empowers us to follow him into incarnational relationships with those who are vulnerable and too often neglected and demonized by the rest of society. I pray this Lenten season we will accept that invitation for it is an invitation for our own liberation. And anything less, as the Pharisees sadly found out, denies the ultimate gift of transformation for our world, and especially for ourselves.